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The Art of Self-Defense

A nerd learns be a real man — perils and all
© Bleecker Street Media Hoping to learn how to defend himself after being attacked at random on the street, Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) enlists at a local dojo, led by a charismatic and mysterious sensei (Alessandro Nivola).
     Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) lives a small, quiet existence. A brutal mugging further entrenches Casey. He feels weak, terrified and incapable of protecting himself. Home from the hospital, afraid to go out after dark, his life becomes even smaller. 
     On a whim, he enters a karate studio. There, Casey meets sensei (Alessandro Nivola), the mysterious head of the dojo. The sensei speaks in platitudes, preaches the art of manliness and convinces Casey that karate is the way to get control of his life. 
     Casey embraces the sensei’s teachings. He spends hours practicing his kicks and punches. He earns his yellow belt in record time. He repeats the sensei’s clichés. He begins to act the way he’s always believed a man should act. He’s violent, demanding and uninterested in anyone else’s wants or needs. 
     Thrilled with Casey’s progress, the sensei invites him to the dojo’s secret night classes. There, Casey finds a new level of aggression. As sensei pushes him to greater violence, Casey has his doubts. 
     Is there no middle ground between the sensei’s brand of masculinity and being a dweeb? 
     Hilarious, violent and surprisingly insightful, The Art of Self-Defense is a strong satiric punch. Director Riley Stearns (Faults) keeps interest up with a heady mix of dark humor and snapping limbs. Among the insights is the homoeroticism inherent in sexism, shown in the naked rubdowns men in the dojo give one another. Loneliness also goes with such a lifestyle, so Casey goes home alone at night.
     As Casey, Eisenberg gives one of the film’s two exceptional performances. On both sides of his transformation, he is a whirlwind of neurosis. He never loses his hovering awkwardness, but it takes an aggressive edge, making him seem nearly unhinged.
     The other star is Nivola, who shines as the sensei. He churns through ridiculous dialogue with such conviction that you’re tempted to believe what he’s saying. His eerie stillness disguises great rage. It’s easy to see both how he charmed his flock — and why they fear leaving him.
     For all its keen observations, The Art of Self-Defense doesn’t reach conclusions. At best, it’s a dark comedy with plenty of bite.
Good Dramedy • R • 104 mins..
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Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood
     Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is still waiting for his big break from television onto the big screen when he and his faithful stunt double Cliff (Brad Pitt) try one last gambit to become movie stars.
     Known for his grand cinematography, sweeping style and scope and intricate stories, director Quentin Tarantino promises an epic look at both the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the unglamorous life behind the celluloid. Expect a rollicking examination of the sex, lies and backstabbing that success in Hollywood demands.
     Tarantino has hinted that this might be his final film, so don’t miss it. At nearly three hours, you won’t want to get the large soda.
Prospects: Bright • R • 181 mins.